The Past is Always a Step Ahead

I tend to talk a lot when I get excited. I often get excited when looking at art. This makes me not always the best of museum- or gallery-going companions, as sometimes I get to talking without really realizing other people can hear me, and might not care to.

Lately, I’ve been fascinated by still-life paintings—particularly game larder still lifes of the 16th and 17th centuries (Frans Snyders, Jan Fyt, Adriaen Van Utrecht)—to a degree that is, perhaps, unwarranted. The grotesque superabundance of these pictures; their fatuous piles of vegetables heaped with glassy-eyed fish, half-peeled oranges and slaughtered animals; all the morbid involvement with surfaces and textures—these things sometimes produce in me their verbal equivalent: a kind of intoxicated logorrhea.

Frans Snyders, "Still-Life with Fruit Basket and Game" (ca. 1620), Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Frans Snyders, “Still-Life with Fruit Basket and Game” (ca. 1620), Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

This is something like what I experienced while admiring Pieter Aertsen’s Gemüseverkäuferin (The Vegetable Seller) (1567) at the Berlin Gemäldegalerie recently. I stood before the image, basically listing aloud all the items depicted therein, along with what I perceived as their particular virtues: “Oh, the roly-poly cabbages!” and “The melon flesh is so fleshy” are things you might have heard me saying if you’d been there that day. Then some remark on a few resiny bunches of grapes, the charming fir tree branches, and the cow’s head poking out from its stall.

Pieter Aertsen, "Gemüseverkäuferin (The Vegetable Seller)" (1567), Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Pieter Aertsen, “Gemüseverkäuferin (The Vegetable Seller)” (1567), Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

“And the waffles!” The deep golden pockets of those giant, ovoid, paddle-like shapes, stacked up and fanned out on the table. But before I could make these last remarks, I heard the word “waffles” returning to me, a defamiliarized echo which now seemed strangely incongruous with the 16th-century origins of the paintings in this gallery.

Waffles? Well, they were indeed waffles, and to my surprise, Aertsen’s Gemüseverkäuferin is not even the first known painting to depict waffles—which, I later learned, were an extremely popular Dutch (and French) fare dating back to the 14th century (and even earlier, if we consider decorative communion wafers their predecessors). No, the first known painted-waffles, according to trusted sources (ahem: Wikipedia), appear in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Fight between Carnival and Lent (1559).

Detail: Waffles used as costume and game board in Breugel's "Fight Between Carnival and Lent"

Detail: Waffles used as costume and game board in Breugel’s “Fight Between Carnival and Lent”

Detail: Waffles from Aertsen's "Gemüseverkäuferin (The Vegetable Seller)"

Detail: Waffles from Aertsen’s “Gemüseverkäuferin (The Vegetable Seller)”

Waffles appear in three distinct places, all in bottom left corner of the composition. I have circled them in red for ease of identification.

Waffles appear in three distinct places, all in bottom left corner of the composition. I have circled them in red for ease of identification.

Since MPW was visiting the Kunsthistoriches in Vienna the following week, we were lucky enough to see these precedent waffles—strangely enough, in an exhibit curated by Ed Ruscha called “The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas.” The premise of this exhibit was to have Ruscha hang out with Kunsthistorisches curators, sifting through its collections and plundering artworks from the museum’s unparalleled old master’s collection, as well as objects from its Kunstkammer (the Renaissance and Baroque treasure cabinet which reopens in February 2013 after a decade of “structural and technical renovations”).

Kunstkammer© Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum--"a ball of swallowed foreign material (usually hair or fiber) that collects in the stomach and fails to pass through the intestines." (U.S. Nat'l Library of Medicine)--"any of various calculi found chiefly in the gastrointestinal organs and formerly believed to possess magical properties" (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

© Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
“A ball of swallowed foreign material (usually hair or fiber) that collects in the stomach and fails to pass through the intestines.” (U.S. Nat’l Library of Medicine)
“Any of various calculi found chiefly in the gastrointestinal organs and formerly believed to possess magical properties” (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Ruscha would select a number of items and would basically curate a micro-collection, a kind of “Ruscha cabinet” within the museum. If memory serves, it contained: two Pieter Bruegel paintings with strikingly similar compositions (Fight between Carnival and Lent (1559) and Children’s Games (1560)); a stuffed North American coyote; a row of 16th-17th century “cooling balls” made of mountain crystal (to be placed on the eyelids to alleviate headaches, fevers, and fatigue); a group of natural and ornamented bezoars (see left); an embalmed North American rattlesnake; an enormous blue crystal; an enormous clear crystal; two fluorescent and hellish portraits by Peter Paul Rubens of the Archduke Albrecht VII and his wife, the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia (c.1615); an exhaustive taxonomic collection of ladybugs; an illuminated 17th-century font sample book; a fantastically ornate and elaborately constructed case of nested scientific and astronomical instruments; Arcimboldo’s  Water (1566) and Summer (1573); Nächtliches Bankett (Nocturnal Banquet), a painting by the 17th-century German artist Wolfgang Heimbach (incidentally, Heimbach was a deaf mute, which makes an intriguing sort of sense of the eerie stillness of this feast scene); a gruesome Rubens and Frans Snyders collaboration, The Head of Medusa (1618); a Jan Brueghel the Elder floral still life and a study by Brueghel of animals in oils (c.1616); a meteorite; a hanging, ornament-like dodecahedron painted with human heads and heads of animals (late-16th C); an early-15th century Viennese model book with silverpoint drawings of heads and busts, human and animal, including a monkey, a horse, a dog, a vulture, and a lion (pocket-sized with accordion folds); a taxidermied salmon; and Ruscha’s drawing, Wanze (1967).

I’m pretty certain that Ruscha wasn’t thinking of waffles when he named his show “The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas,” and I’m guessing that waffles didn’t influence his decision to include Bruegel’s Fight between Carnival and Lent in the exhibit. But dammit if it isn’t a coincidence. Waffles were a great idea: Delicious and, as everyone knows, ingenuously designed to capture little pools of butter and syrup. So, hats off to Ruscha, I say. Whether in this instance he knows it or not, the man has a sharp eye and a powerful intuition.

The only possible exception we can make to his exhibit is the omission of this Ancient Persian boot mug:

Ancient Persian "Boot Mug," (ca. 1800-2000 BCE), Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

Ancient Iranian “Boot Mug,” (ca. 1000 BCE), Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

Ancient Persian "Boot Mug," (ca. 1800-2000 BCE), Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

Ancient Iranian “Boot Mug,” (ca. 1000 BCE), Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But such an exception is entirely unfair, since the ancient boot mug is housed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Still, it’s an invention to rival the waffle—and it seems to support and extend Ruscha’s hypothesis:

The ancients haven’t just cribbed our ideas; they’ve also stolen our glory.

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: Curve, Peak, Pit, and Channel | mostperfectworld

  2. To clarify, the Wikipedia entry doesn’t say the Bruegel waffles are the first known painted version of waffles. Since I’m the waffle-obsessed psycho who wrote that entry, I was just showing the Bruegel piece as a clear example of the early waffle form in Dutch painting. There may well be earlier versions, but since waffle irons (as we think of them) almost certainly didn’t come about until the latter 15th or early 16th century, it’s likely among the earliest to be found.

  3. Thanks, Adam, for the correction and for the excellent Wikipedia article on waffles!

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